Sunday, December 30, 2007

Herbert Croly's Progressive Democracy: A Roadmap for Social Justice Educators

Herbert Croly. Progressive Democracy with a new introduction by Sidney A Pearson, Jr. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ. 1998. Originally published in 1914 by the Macmillan Company.

Herbert Croly's 94-year-old Progressive Democracy is slow going because its English is as thick as Turkish coffee. A contemporary reader needs patience to imbibe its grounds, but the gulping is worth it. Many of Croly's ideas are outdated, but the degree to which current progressive-liberals continue to advocate them is remarkable given their persistent failure.

At times, Croly uses the term progressive-liberal. Those who called themselves liberal, dropping the progressive in the post-war period, have reverted to calling themselves progressive, dropping the liberal part, in the post-Clinton era. Perhaps the term progressive-liberal, which is a term Croly sometimes uses, instead of either progressive or liberal is best. Game playing with nomenclature distracts attention from content. Given the outcomes of the progressive-liberals' ideas, game playing might serve their purposes well.

The progressive-liberals' game-playing with nomenclature follows Croly. Croly's use of the term conservatives versus progressive-liberals is an example. In various places (p. 148) he contrasts individual justice with social justice but he does not refer to advocates of individual justice as say individualist-liberals versus progressive-liberals, which would have been more neutral. Instead, he uses the terms progressive-liberals versus conservatives, which suggests that progress requires adoption of progressive-liberals' ideas. Although Croly's ideas were adopted through the 1980s, their adoption stalled rather than furthered progress.

Croly's emphasis on democracy at the expense of limited government remains a mainstay of progressive-liberal ideology. Many of Croly's ideas about governmental reforms, such as the executive's proposing the budget to the legislature, are taken for granted today. His vision that vaguely defined law will be implemented through regulation is what exists today. Those who advocated government reform in the early twentieth century, such as Theodore Roosevelt, were Croly's friends and admirers.

As I have previously blogged, Croly emphasizes social justice education and the role of education in the inculcation of his social justice ideology. Democracy and education overlap. The book's final chapter (p. 406) on social education is a precursor to post-1960s political correctness:

"The need of imposing more exacting standards of behavior upon the citizens of an industrial democratic state applies to the citizen as citizen no less than the citizen as worker...The being of better men and women will involve, as it always has involved, the subordination, to a very considerable extent, of individual interests and desires to the requirements of social welfare."

Ayn Rand termed Croly's view altruism. It explains why progressive-liberals are eager to advocate policies that common sense rejects. One can subordinate oneself to an infinite set of incompetent or harmful policies. Although progressive-liberalism has consistently advocated these, progressive-liberals remain convinced because they believe in altruism. In their view, self-sacrifice is virtue so their advocacy of harmful policies is moral. There is no end to the ways that progressive-liberals can encourage altruistic virtue, especially when applied to others.

The progressive-liberals base their ideology on the pragmatists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who argued that the best course is found empirically through trial and error. However, at least since the New Deal, progressive-liberalism has been rigidly attached to government solutions and has rejected the possibility of error in government-based solutions. The government solution, once adopted, has been written in stone tablets and cannot be abridged. Even when programs fail, and private sector solutions might work better, progressive-liberals irrationally adhere to them. The progressive-liberals have betrayed William James and Charles Sanders Pierce.

In Progressive Democracy Croly argues that the 19th century American system of government, which combined legal limits that restrained political power with legal review, needed to be revised. The American democracy had been "timid" (p. 26) and needed to be "aroused to take a searching look at its own meaning and responsibilities". In his advocacy of the Americanism of reform Croly was not far from Jefferson, who in a famous letter to William S. Smith wrote:

"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."

Croly argues that "the way to rationalize political power" is not to limit it but (p. 38) to "accept the danger of violence" and to develop reasonable thinking from within. Croly was of course no Jeffersonian. Rather, he was more favorable to Hamilton and the Whigs, and admired the pro-business policies of the Republicans, although he considered them to have failed.


In Croly's view, "reasonable thinking" was to be inculcated through education. He discusses the threat to social values and social cohesion of the various suffrage, labor and similar movements of the early twentieth century (p. 407) and argues that (p. 408)"social cohesion cannot be made effective without some measure of social compulsion." Thus, Croly's progressive-liberal ideology is a violent one, an argument more explicitly expressed in Croly's other famous book, Promise of American Life. Croly aims to contain the danger of democratic violence with compulsion through education:

" the creation of an adequate system of educating men and women for disinterested service is a necessary condition both of social amelioration and social conservation."

Thus, progressive-liberalism is in part a program for social control through education. Croly's view of national purpose as necessary to bind the democracy and create human excellence suggests compulsion as well. Croly argues against "moral coercion" or the inculcation of the habit of self-restraint in education (p. 413), which he saw as part of the maintenance of the old social order in favor of (p. 417) "a liberal education" which opposes "traditional culture" (p. 417):

"The social education appropriate to a democracy must be, above all, a liberal education. It must accomplish for the mass of the people a work of intellectual and moral emancipation similar to that which the traditional system of human culture has been supposed to accomplish for a minority. This traditional culture could never become really liberating, because of the narrowness and sterility of its human interests...(Traditional liberal education) was intended to emancipate only a few privileged people..."

Croly disagrees that education ought to encourage "self-control, moderation and circumspection". He argues that the rule of "live and let live" favors the rich, who engage in conspicuous consumption, and ought to be replaced with a philosophy of "live and help live" (p. 426), a philosophy of social justice education. He links social justice education to labor issues, and the restructuring of work.

In this, Croly anticipates modern management theory, specifically the ideas of Elton Mayo's human relations school, and the job redesign theories of Frederick Herzberg and Abraham Maslow. He writes (p. 422):

"The masses need, of course, a larger share of material welfare, but they need most of all an increased opportunity of wholesome and stimulating social labor. Their work must be made interesting to them, not merely because of its compensation, but because its performance calls for the development of more eager and more responsible human beings."

Like Herzberg, Croly advocates redistribution of dull and interesting work, which Herzberg, 45 years later, called vertical downloading. This idea saw its fulfillment in the 1980s downsizing of corporations, where managerial work was assigned to rank-and-file workers along with the rote work. In contrast, Croly advocated the socialization of dull work by distributing it among all citizens. However, this view is naive because it ignores the specialization of labor on which modern economies rest.

Rather than discipline, Croly argues that education should involve active involvement in social behavior, which relates to the issue of social justice dispositions or competencies. He argues that "the only way to prepare for social life is to engage in social life" (p. 423). He emphasizes faith in the belief in the "invincible interdependence between individual and social fulfillment" (p. 425). "Live and help live" suggests, in Croly's view "the ultimate collectivism" (p. 426-7):

"The obligation of mutual assistance is fundamental...Every victorious selfish impulse, every perverse and cowardly thought, every petty action, every irresponsibility and infirmity of the will helps to impoverish the lives of other people as well as our own lives. We cannot liberate ourselves without seeking to liberate them..."

Croly's book leaves little doubt about the ideological foundation of the concept of social justice disposition that the National Council on Teacher Education has permitted in education schools and, according to George Will, has been prevalent in social work schools.

Croly's faith in the perfectibility of humanity is the same faith that has been at the root of the worst crimes of the twentieth century, from the 25 points of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party program and Marx's Communist Manifesto to the mass killings in Germany, the USSR and Cuba. While Croly suggests the importance of moderation and self-restraint (that is, focusing on others rather than ourselves requires self-restraint), it is precisely the inculcation of moderation and self-restraint that Croly attacks in his discussion about education.

The followers of Croly and John Dewey have inevitably focused on developing habits of self-esteem, experiential educational and the unimportance of basic skills and knowledge, coupled with an ideology that assumes a tremendous degree of human self-restraint. Thus, progressive-liberal education sets up students for failure on moral as well as academic grounds.


Croly bases his argument on the idea that limited government, what he considers the legalistic Constitutionalism of nineteenth century America, was a way for the founding fathers, 18th century republican liberals, to permit the government to escape "popular control" (p. 46). Excessive emphasis or "deification" of the Constitution resulted from lack of respect for the "popular will". The American system perpetuated the English "political and legal tradition" (p. 57) and focused on individual liberty and property. The Jeffersonian Democrats opposed federalism, which amounted to the legalistic system that Croly decries, but Jefferson allied himself with the Constitutional system, to the Democrats' political advantage (p. 59). Croly repeatedly expresses frustration with American democracy's unwillingness to change the underlying Constitutional system. In his view, American government was government by law and the courts while the two political parties reflected direct popular control, and the purpose of the parties was to "humanize and control government by Law" (p. 67).

Croly's frustration with the Constitutionalism of nineteenth century American democracy relates to its limits on the power and scope of government:

"Good administration consists in the adoption of the most efficient available methods for the accomplishment of an accepted policy."

But while the state was hamstrung, the 19th century political parties were effective. But the political parties are self-interested and so did not care about efficient administration.

Croly is relatively fond of the pro-business Whigs. He describes them (p. 75) as

"a national party whose life depended upon its ability to unite on an enterprising positive assertion of the public interest...Its National Bank was abolished. Its protective tariff was reduced to almost a revenue basis. A national plan of internal improvements was never adopted. Thus the Whigs were beaten all along the line."

Despite the Whigs' defeat, the expansion of markets led to a recognition of the need for a national economic policy and (pp. 86-7):

"Stephen Douglas was the first conspicuous political leader who proposed national grants of land in aid of railroad corporations...Public assistance was bestowed upon almost every essential economic interest...The Republican Party...almost immediately became the victim of special economic interests and devoted its power to the establishment of a privileged and undemocratic economic system..."

In turn (p. 93), "both the capitalist and the agricultural had come to depend for the satisfaction of their interests not merely on the vigorous stimulation afforded by the Constitution, but on the vigorous stimulation provided by the government." This government subsidy to industry was being made based on the belief that "every economic class was benefiting equally from the stimulation" but this was not, in Croly's view, true (p.95):

"In point of fact the stimulation of productive economic energy no longer contributed necessarily to the public welfare; and the two partisan organizations were no longer instruments of democratic rule."

Croly (p. 88) approves of the Republicans' emphasis on "accelerating the production of wealth" although he does not believe that their individualist, laissez faire philosophy was successful.

This ultimately becomes an empirical question: do the policies that the nineteenth century Republicans advocated have a better long term effect on increasing wealth than the policies that Croly advocates or not? Given that Croly's policies have been adopted, and the twentieth century has not seen the economic progress of the nineteenth, it seems that Croly was wrong. Indeed, Croly contradicts himself when he is making different points. On p. 92 he writes of the post Civil War period:

"Wealth was created and accumulated more quickly than ever before...The American people were enjoying much prosperity and were mad for more..."

But it does not occur to him that this is impossible without major technological advance because Croly assumes a distributive economic process (p. 97). Again we see the basic Progressive-liberal pattern, where a fallacy that Croly enunciated in 1914 (along with socialists, such as Marx) remains a foundation of progressive-liberal views today. Because, in Croly's view, pioneers used up resources, their individual actions did not necessarily serve social interests. The wealth creation of the late nineteenth century was exploitative in his view. But it was not. In a distributive economic process, one side's gain is the other side's loss. In an integrative process, one side's gain is the other side's gain as well. Market transactions are inevitably integrative because otherwise they would not occur. Even the most exploited third world worker has the right to refuse to work in a factory. The same was true of capitalist industrial expansion in the nineteenth century. It enabled an enormous influx of immigrants, who were poorer than Croly would have liked. But if the wealth creation of the nineteenth century had been distributive, there would have been a downturn because of the immigration. But there was not. Rather, real wages rose throughout the late nineteenth century and until the establishment of the Federal Reserve Bank.

Croly's points about government support of business are good, but, and this is in keeping with the progressive-liberal viewpoint of today, the remedy for the failure of government is not necessarily more government. The remedy might be to shrink or eliminate government because its programs are poorly conceived and executed. Yet, Croly does not consider this to be a realistic possibility. Better to address the problem of failed government support for railroads by having government regulate the railroads and support them even more.

Croly argues that as industry expanded more people became employees and so could not benefit from government subsidies to business (p. 98):

"A system which had intended to scatter the benefits of special economic privileges over the whole surface of society had resulted in the piling up of these benefits on certain limited areas...Mere stimulation of the production of wealth, which was being distributed in so unequal a manner, was no longer a nationalizing and socializing economic policy..."

Thus, the capitalist class, in Croly's view, gained the chief advantage from Republican support for business, while the growing working class was ignored. Ironically, policies that Croly advocated, notably various regulations, ended up serving the same ends. It remains a puzzle to me why, given the inability of government to avoid special interest capture, the progressive-liberals have not concluded that government opposes the ends that they seek.

Private Property

Croly (p. 112) also argues for a modification to, but not elimination of, the institution of private property in order to "socialize human nature" and that private property inevitably leads to privilege (p. 113):

"The recognition of a necessary inequality and injustice in the operation of the existing institution of private property, coupled with the recognition that the immediate abolition of private property would be both unjust and impracticable, constitutes the foundation of any really national and progressive economic policy."

Instead, Croly argues for the "socialization" (p. 115) of privilege. People should be permitted to keep the privileges they have, but be gradually taught that they must earn the privileges. Society must require that those who benefit from wealth earn the spoils. The Republicans had failed to require that privileges be passed around. Society should make privileges available to the "disenfranchised" (p. 116) and, in somewhat odd terminology that almost sounds like compulsory labor(p.116):

"create a system of special discipline, coextensive with the system of special privilege, the object of which will be assurance, as the result of its operation, of socially desirable fruits."

In other words, Croly argues that wage earners had been excluded from opportunity, and the American capitalist system could not make property ownership accessible to them because the frontier was used up. A new system of privilege involving social legislation would thus be focused on wage earners. This regulation was subsequently passed in the Progressive era and the New Deal, to include health and safety regulation (passed in the 1970s), labor regulation (passed during the New Deal) and expansion of higher education, a post World War II phenomenon. What is most noteworthy today about these proposals is that although they have been in place for decades, social stratification is today greater than ever. Hence, Croly's policies have failed to eliminate social stratification. Today, we have universities that graduate semi-literates; labor legislation that is irrelevant to workers' interests; health and safety regulation that at most marginally protects workers but significantly raises costs to small firms; and inflationary credit policies that have concentrated wealth among connected hedge fund operators, Wall Street executives and commercial bankers. Croly's vision of democratized privilege has failed. Yet, today's progressive-liberals are not pragmatists who urge experimentation and new approaches, say abolition of the Federal Reserve Bank. Should anyone suggest that the poor cost/benefit ratio that Social Security provides requires an alternative approach, our reactionary progressive-liberals howl.

Croly's belief (p.123) that "responsible" American political organizataion must be coextensive with the new system of "privilege" has also fared poorly. Although open bribery no longer exists, as it did in Croly's day and earlier, the extent of corruption is probably greater in absolute dollars. Hence, Croly's vision of a responsible government coupled with a new system of privilege has merely served to cloak more privilege and more corruption than ever before. This results directly from the failure of the Croly's method, a strong state and an emphasis on popular deliberation, that has become fundamental to today's progressive-liberalism.

Popular Political Education

Croly (p. 144) argues that American Constitutional democracy succeeded and that the American public had been educated as to how to function democratically, so that the safeguards against tyranny that limited government and the Constitution promulgated were no longer needed. Likewise, progressive-liberals must emphasize popular political education (p. 145):

"The great object of progressives must always be to create a vital relation between progressivism and popular political education. If such a relation cannot be brought about, progressive democracy becomes a snare and an illusion..."

Faith and Progressive-liberalism

The difference (p. 148) between the progressive-liberal political education and the 19th century classical liberal education is that:

"The ideal of individual justice is being supplemented by the ideal of social justice...Now the tendency is to conceive the social welfare not as an end which cannot be left to the happy harmonizing of individual interests, but as an end which must be consciously willed by society and efficiently realized. Society has become a moral ideal not independent of the individual but supplementary to him, an ideal which must be pursued less by regulating individual excesses than by active encouragement of socializing tendencies and purposes."

Democracy can be furthered only by popular good will. But laissez faire republicanism limited the popular will. The founders intended to (p. 153):

"create a system which would make for liberty and justice in spite of he want of character of the American people"

while progressive-liberals believe that increasing democracy will enhance the "collective enlightenment of the people". Laissez faire resulted in cynicism and business opportunism. Progressivism is an expression of and form of faith (p. 168):

"A democracy becomes courageous, progressive and ascendant just in so far as it dares to have faith...Faith in things unseen and unknown is as indispensible to a progressive democracy as it is to an individual Christian..."

Croly (p. 168) compares the progressive-liberals' rejection of the Constitution with the early Christians' replacement of the Jewish law with faith. The progressive-liberals' faith is in social justice and in social justice education (p. 211-12):

"The socially righteous expression of the popular will is to be brought about by frank and complete confidence in (popular democracy). This faith is in itself educational in the deepest and most fruitful meaning of that word...The value of the social structure is commensurate with the value of the accompanying educational discipline and enlightenment...The idea of social justice is so exacting and so comprehensive that it cannot be progressively attained by any agency save by the loyal and intelligent devotion of popular will...The people are made whole by virtue of the consecration of their collective efforts to the realization of an ideal of social justice."

Croly also argues for pragmatism in the pursuit of social justice and democracy (p. 217):

"The immediate program is only the temporary instrument which must be continually reformed and readjusted as a result of the experience gained by its experimental application..."

In practice, of course, progressive-liberalism has turned out to be extremely conservative. I doubt that even one in one thousand progressive-liberal programs and ideas has ever been terminated from the federal government once adopted. In contrast, private firms kill ideas all the time, and the ratio is reversed for new product introductions or business start ups.

Restructuring of Government

Several of Croly's ideas about restructuring government were subsequently adopted. Croly favored increased government power but was only lukewarm toward the ideas of "direct democracy" that have been adopted in the west---the referendum, the recall and the initiative. In his view, the importance of strengthening democracy was that it permits pursuit of "a vigorous social program" (p. 270), and in turn the need for a vigorous social program results from changes in society and political organization. Positive social policies require "strong responsible governments" (p. 271) and (p. 274) "a thoroughly representative government is essentially government by men rather than by Law". In order to accomplish unlimited government, the (p. 272) administrative and legislative branches of government needed to be enhanced (p. 270):

"Direct democracy, that is, has little meaning except in a community which is resolutely pursuing a vigorous social program. It must become one of a group of political institutions whose object is fundamentally to invigorate and socialize the action of American public opinion..."

More important, in Croly's view would be a new organization to (p. 283) "promote political education." This is accomplished by increasing both state government and popular control together (p. 286). I got the feeling in reading these recommendations that Croly was anticipating George Orwell's 1984. He says that both government agencies that function beyond the cognitive domain of the public ought to have increased authority and popular control of the same organizations ought to be increased. But you cannot have both. Perhaps Croly believed that you could, but there are cognitive limits on rational decision making even in private enterprises. How on earth could the general public evaluate the actions of specialized regulators, who may well be doing things that would meet with public disapproval if the public understood what they were doing?

Croly (p. 287) speaks glowingly of municipal commissions that combine "a simple, strong and efficient government with a thoroughly popular government." It seems to me that the history of Robert Moses in New York is very much an outgrowth of this kind of self-contradictory mental gymnastics. Moses started out doing things that met with popular approval, but carried his activities to the point of doing things that threw tens of thousands of people out of their homes in order to provide transportation outlets to suburbanites. Ultimately, Moses's work became corrupt in areas like urban renewal and public housing. Moses's corruption and the hatchet job Moses did on the Upper East Side's coastline is the fruition of Croly's ideas.

Croly (p. 292) uses a proposal of the People's Power Leaguge for the government of Oregon as an example of progressive-liberal reform. The governor and legislature would be elected on the same day. The governor would have extensive appointment authority. The governor could be recalled. The governor could recommend legislation and also vote in the legislature. He would have no veto power. He would introduce the budget. The state legislature would counterbalance a stronger executive. Voters could cast their ballots for legislative candidates of other districts. If any one sixtieth of all voters vote for a candidate, the candidate would be elected to the legislature. No bill could pass unless the number of legislators voting for it reflected a majority of the voting citizens. Defeated candidates for governor would be members of the legislature representing voters who voted for unsuccessful candidates. By allowing voters to vote for candidates in other districts, voting might be more along the lines of class and interest groups such as labor unions and farmers.

Thus (p. 303) in Croly's view the governor ought to be responsible for proposing legislation and executing law, which is the basic approach that many states have adopted although not in such extreme ways. In Croly's view (p. 304) executive leadership best reflects majority opinion. Initiatives and referendums are not really democratic because (p. 306) only a minority of people vote. Referendums place power in a knowledgable minority (p. 308):

"A democracy should not be organized so that the alert and vigorous minority can easily make its will prevail over their less vigorous fellow-citizens."

The two-party system (p. 312) leads, in Croly's view, to the suppression of differences of public opinion in the interest of party unity. A focus on executive leadership involves a greater emphasis on the candidate for governor's ability to oranize a legitimate majority. Executive leadership will arouse and concentrate public opinion. Interest groups would form coalitions. "Majority rule would be salutary, precisely because it would be fluid and adjustable" (p. 323).


Croly puts excessive faith on the public's ability to discern errors or governmental decisions that are entirely in opposition to the public's interest. The media are able to mislead and misrepresent. Economic interests with much to gain are likely to pay in various ways to obtain misrepresentation that serves them. Coverage of the Federal Reserve Bank and inflation, for instance, has been a joke for the past 50years. The public hears that Alan Greenspan has done an excellent job, and is asleep to the reality that a dollar in 1979 is worth 38 cents today. The flattening of real wages, they are told is due to the tax system and free trade, and they vote for Mike Huckabee.

Croly's optimism about the power of democracy was tragically naive. We will never know how many lives would have been transformed by technological breakthroughs that did not occur because of the adoption of progressive-liberalism.

Similarly, his views on social justice education have had unfortunate outcomes in recent years. One can appreciate his optimism but find his misguided application of religious fervor to democracy distasteful and foolish.

It is tragic that Croly's ideas have had a dominant influence on twentieth century America. His progressive-liberal ideology is intrusive, destructive and ugly. That it has gained favor among American elites suggests a massive failure of twentieth century education and morality. We live in a dark age, especially when compared to the nineteenth century.

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